By James Bargent and Mayra Alejandra Bonilla
Thousands of police and military swept through the north Ecuador district of Buenos Aires last month in an attempt to control the illegal mining boom that has ravaged the region, but it may be too late to stop the country’s criminal gold rush.
On July 2, 2,400 soldiers and police officers were deployed to Buenos Aires and tasked with driving out illegal gold miners, who by some estimates numbered as many as 10,000.
Over 2,700 miners voluntarily left the site, while a further 2,500 were driven away by security forces, reported in the newspaper El Universo. Among them were 1,395 Venezuelans and 906 Colombians, as well as several Dominicans, Argentines and a Haitian.
In the first days of the operation, police also made 26 arrests and seized over 700 grams of gold, 1,400 sacks of ore and two firearms, according to El Universo.
The authorities were finally provoked into taking drastic measures after a dramatic shootout between armed gangs left at least four wounded and two dead in late June, according to police officials. Shortly after the confrontation, President Lenín Moreno declared a state of emergency and launched the operation.
On July 31 and August 1, another government raid shut down a smaller illegal gold mining operation in the southern Andes, near the city of Cuenca. Unlike the situation in Buenos Aires, authorities believe they can control illegal mining in the south.
Tensions had been building in Buenos Aires since the arrival of heavily armed Colombian criminals in early 2019. While the identities of the Colombians are unconfirmed, a local miner, who did not want to be identified for fear of repercussions, claimed they were linked to organized crime structures in the Colombian city of Cali and Medellin.
Police officials, meanwhile, showed InSight Crime text communications from one suspect talking about how they were going to “enter with the paracos” — Colombian slang for paramilitaries and a term commonly used for the criminalized successor groups of Colombia’s demobilized counterinsurgents. The chat history includes photos of a small arsenal of high-powered weaponry.
Sources in the area report how the Colombians drove out the Ecuadorean gangs that had previously controlled extortion networks. “The Colombians arrived here with rifles, so [the Ecuadoreans] ran away,” said the miner.
According to the miner, the Colombians called meetings in which they laid down the new rules for working and living in the area, which included daily fees for every person to enter the mining zone, fees to open a mine, fees to run a processing plant and a 10 percent cut of all mining operations.
With members of at least two different groups moving in on Buenos Aires, the miner, speaking in May 2019, predicted the violence to come. “They will be friends until they have the zone under control, but when one starts earning more than the other, they are going to kill each other,” he said.
The operation has left Buenos Aires facing uncertainty over what will come next. The state of emergency will last for 60 days, and the government has yet to announce plans to keep control of the area in the long term although it says it will necessary to maintain troops in the area for the foreseeable futrue.
The uncertainty has also spread to neighboring areas. Community leaders in the nearby region of Intag, which have been involved in a long-running struggle against plans for large-scale mining projects in the region, report they now fear illegal miners as well.
Illegal mining operations have already been established in the Intag areas of Selva Alegre and Cuellaje. Community leaders that have opposed their arrival have received death threats, including one local council leader who was sent a video by WhatsApp purporting to show murders committed in Buenos Aires as a warning.
Leaders warn that the operation in Buenos Aires could see displaced miners heading to Intag.
“Since the eviction of the miners in Buenos Aires, they are again arriving to Intag, and the situation is getting more dangerous,” said José Cueva, a leader with the Intag environmental collective Corporación Toisán.
Challenge of maintaining the peace
The massive deployment of security forces in north Ecuador may spell the end of the Buenos Aires boom, but it is unlikely to be the end of illegal mining in the region. Although Ecuador’s illegal mining problem is much smaller than Colombia’s and Peru’s, it poses a considerable challenge.
The incredible riches on offer are likely to see miners return when the current unsustainable levels of security forces are reduced, even if the miners have to operate in a more clandestine fashion than before.
The likelihood of miners returning is also boosted by the rampant corruption that facilitated the arrival of illegal mining to the region in the first place. Multiple sources alleged to InSight Crime that police and local authorities up to the highest levels were making huge profits from the Buenos Aires mines.
As the situation in Intag shows, illegal mining is also poised to spread elsewhere, and not only in the immediate area. InSight Crime field research revealed a rapid growth in illegal mining operations throughout Ecuador’s northern border region, while officials voiced concerns that there are as yet untouched areas that could prove as rich in gold as Buenos Aires.
Credit: InsightCrime, www.insightcrime.org